Pietr Bienkowski

Q&A with Piotr Bienkowski

Rebecca Atkinson, 13.05.2015
On the barriers to participation
Piotr Bienkowski is the project director of the Paul Hamlyn Foundation’s Our Museum programme, which supports museums and galleries to put community needs, values, aspirations and active collaboration at the core of their work.

He is speaking at the forthcoming MP seminar, Take your partners: Creating sustainable participation, at the Millennium Centre in Cardiff on 16 June.

Participation has been an active area of museum practice for several years now, but how successful do you think the sector has been in embedding this into their core offers?

Participation is still too often something that happens through individual, self-contained projects. Staff delivering participation are often on short-term contracts, or work quite separately from the rest of the organisation, and so the work remains peripheral and never affects the whole organisation.

The community participants are often dropped at the end of a project, and rarely feel involved in the wider work of the museum or gallery.

Participation is more than just co-producing exhibitions with individual groups – it is about being responsive to community issues and priorities, sharing decision-making, developing the museum or gallery together, and it’s something that should involve all staff of the museum or gallery.

What are the main barriers to participation?

The barriers run right through the ways museums and galleries work – it isn’t just one thing. There can be a lack of active, championing support and buy-in from the director, senior staff, and governing body; a sense that generating income and increasing audiences somehow conflicts strategically with deeper participation; and too often one staff member or one group is tasked with working with communities, rather than the responsibility being shared across the organisation.

Museums and galleries often choose to work with known, safe communities, who don’t want to challenge the organisation or really share in decision making, and so who you work with can be unrepresentative of an area’s diversity. Staff often need development to help them understand what participation is and how all the different roles can contribute.

Fear is also a barrier and can lead to paralysis and avoidance. I have encountered fear related to financial survival, fear of sharing authority, fear for professional expertise and status, and even just fear of change itself.

What approaches have proved successful in the Our Museum programme?

We are learning that you cannot embed participation by changing just one or two things. To transform your participatory practice, and tackle all the main barriers, means changing lots of small things across the whole organisation (such as governance and leadership, staff development, how to engage strategically with communities, the importance of including external voices). The big lesson is that small changes add up.

Some of the museums involved in the Our Museum programme will be sharing their different approaches at Take your partners seminar next month.

What advice would you give to museums that want to be more participatory in their community engagement work?

Consider your communities’ priorities first: they will help to determine your organisation’s priorities. Find out who they all are – especially through third sector agencies who have wide networks – be proactive in approaching them, and listen to their issues.

Many of them might never have considered that the museum or gallery has something substantive to offer them, and you may be surprised yourselves how you can harness all your resources innovatively to really contribute to your community.


Timetable and booking information for Take your partners


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Mary (Marette) Hickford
MA Member
Learning Activities Assistant, Historic Royal Palaces
16.05.2015, 10:19
How about having such teams/projects staff give presentations in trustees/governance meetings? Also, because contracts will be short-term, depending upon the project, each staff member involved should make contributions which are unedited and which can be accessed along with the final evaluation report.

Project managers/senior managers should also use the fundings and have a system which takes forward the findings to other projects.